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Asian countries take new steps against people-smuggling

NUSA DUA, Indonesia (AFP) -- A forum of mainly Asian countries agreed Wednesday on new contingency measures to better respond to refugee crises, and vowed to review the region's much-criticised handling of a major migrant influx last year.

The announcement at a conference on Indonesia's Bali island on people smuggling and illegal migration was welcomed by the UN refugee agency, which declared it the first agreement of its kind in the 14-year history of the regional forum.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop -- who co-chaired the meeting of the forum, which has 45 member states -- said regional officials could now convene emergency meetings and fast-track an "agile and timely" response in the event of an unfolding migrant crisis.

Officials also agreed to review the response to the Southeast Asian refugee emergency in May last year, when thousands of asylum seekers in rickety boats were stranded at sea in the biggest regional migrant crisis since the end of the Vietnam War.

A Thai crackdown on the lucrative smuggling industry prompted traffickers to abandon their human cargo at sea, sparking a crisis that saw more than 3,500 Bangladeshi economic migrants and stateless Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar land in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Malaysia and Indonesia triggered international outrage by initially turning away boatloads of the desperate migrants, but eventually relented under heavy international pressure.

Bishop, who chaired the ministerial-level meeting alongside her Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi, said there were concerns that during the crisis, no mechanism existed to galvanise the region "in a timely fashion".

"We believe that this will give us that opportunity to do so," she said of the new arrangement.

The UN refugee agency said arrangements that shared responsibility were "the only way" forward, adding no country was immune from such crises at a time when tens of millions have been displaced around the world.

Indonesia, which hosts more than 13,000 refugees, had been stressing the need for all countries in the region to share the burden in the lead up to this year's conference.

The issue of asylum seekers has long been a flashpoint between the co-hosts of the people-smuggling forum, which is known as the Bali Process and began in 2002 to address the flow of illegal migrants around the region.

A large number of asylum seekers trying to reach Australia have ended up stranded in Indonesia. This was exacerbated after Canberra introduced in 2013 a tough policy of turning back boats when it is safe to do so, an approach opposed by Indonesia.

The Bali Process mainly consists of Asian nations, including China and India, but also includes Middle Eastern countries, such as Iran and Syria.